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Wyler and Bezos
OneWeb executive chairman Greg Wyler and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos shake hands on a deal for satellite launches on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A day after announcing the first launch customer for Blue Origin’s yet-to-be-built New Glenn rocket, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos introduced the second customer: OneWeb, a venture that aims to create a satellite network for global broadband access.

Over the next few years, OneWeb is planning to send hundreds, and then thousands of small satellites into low Earth orbit. In partnership with Airbus, OneWeb is due to build and launch the first satellites within the next year. It’s also planning a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing complex on Florida’s Space Coast – not far from where Blue Origin is building a 750,000-square-foot factory for New Glenn rockets.

OneWeb already has struck deals with Virgin Orbit and Arianespace for the initial launches. The deal that Bezos announced today provides for five additional launches on the New Glenn, starting in 2021. Those five launches could accommodate as many as 400 satellites, OneWeb executive chairman Greg Wyler told The Wall Street Journal.

Today’s announcement follows through on word that Blue Origin, headquartered in Kent, Wash., has signed up the Paris-based satellite operator Eutelsat as the New Glenn program’s first paying customer. The financial terms for the Eutelsat and OneWeb deals have not been announced, but the fact that deals are being made signals that Bezos’ space venture is making a strong play for geostationary as well as low-Earth-orbit launch contracts, even though the orbital rocket hasn’t yet been built.

Blue Origin’s Florida factory is due to be finished by the end of this year, and Bezos has said New Glenn launches should begin by 2020.

OneWeb’s status could change if its proposed merger with Intelsat, facilitated with a $1.7 billion investment from SoftBank, wins shareholder approval. That’s not expected to affect the Blue Origin deal, however.

The deal represents a linkup between competitors to SpaceX and its billionaire founder, Elon Musk, on separate fronts: Blue Origin has vied with SpaceX over access to launch facilities, while OneWeb’s proposed network is competitive with SpaceX’s plans for a 4,425-satellite constellation that’s also aimed at providing global internet access. SpaceX’s satellite development operation is based in Redmond, Wash.

Up until now, Blue Origin’s main claim to fame has been its New Shepard suborbital spaceship – which has made five successful trips to space and back, and could start flying people by the end of this year. The company has also focused on development of the BE-4, a rocket engine fueled by liquefied natural gas that’s destined for use on the New Glenn as well as United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket. The BE-4 is expected to begin full-scale test firings within the next few weeks.

Virgin Orbit’s president, Dan Hart, told GeekWire that Blue Origin’s entry into the low-Earth-orbit market illustrates how quickly the commercial launch industry is evolving to take advantage of advances in satellite technology.

“The commercial industry is stepping up to serve what is a burgeoning LEO market. … We’re all coming together and raising the bar,” Hart said at the Satellite 2017 conference here in Washington.

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